Alumni Profile: Andrew Beck '07

Brenda Pike
November 13, 2009
Andrew Beck '07 turns unconventional materials into musical instruments.
Photo provided by the artist

Andrew Beck had played around with computer programming before he came to Berklee, but it wasn't until his junior year that his musical and technical interests melded. Described as a "virtuosic programmer" by professor Richard Boulanger, the music synthesis/film scoring dual major has now written textbook chapters, gotten a full scholarship to Georgia Tech's master's program, filed two patents, and founded a startup company—just two years after graduation. We spoke to Beck about his accomplishments by phone; below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

What have you been up to since leaving Berklee?

I started a master's program at Georgia Tech doing music technology. It covers everything from building synthesizers to writing code for web-based stuff or games. It's just getting started, still finding its direction, so everyone here who's part of it is part of writing the program itself. I've done a few installations through them—we rent out spaces around Atlanta and do art shows—but they're also really big on patenting technology, so I've written a few patents.

What are these patents for?

One is for creating music on mobile devices. The amount of power on these little devices is enough to run all this synthesis stuff usually done on computers. You have your own little studio in your pocket, connected to the web the whole time, so there's interactivity. It's called ZOOZbeat. It's at the iTunes app store right now, and it's gotten over a million downloads. We were one of the first companies to be releasing stuff on the apps store.

Is this simple enough for the average person to use?

It's intended for people who might not know anything about music, or people who do but who don't really want to set up the environment. What's really important to us is that it shouldn't be as complicated as Logic or ProTools. So we do a lot of free processing; we take songs and instruments and set them up so there's an environment where people can easily play music inside of them. You don't spend a lot of time tweaking values and finding the right scale or chord or background beat. We take care of a lot of that for you and allow you to change it later if you want to.

So this started as a school project?

The roots of it go way back to Berklee. I actually did something with Dr. B [Richard Boulanger] where we used Wiimotes to make music. I wrote this program that connected to the Wiimote and then wrote some sounds, and Dr. B dropped that into a piece. He's still performing it. It's really similar to how cell phones work, because they have accelerometers and a tiny bit of processing, as well. When I came to Georgia Tech there was something already going on using cell phones to connect to the computer to play music. I got frustrated with having to connect to the computer every single time, so in an act of desperation I put it all onto the phone, and it worked a lot better.

How does the Wiimote project actually work?

It connects with Bluetooth, so you start up the computer to read the Bluetooth and it sends accelerometer values. The accelerometer basically measures the position of the Wiimote; it's actually measuring how much gravity is affecting three different sides. So I took these values and mapped them to different sound qualities. So you can start exploring the different facets of a single sound as it gradually morphs and changes as you rotate the Wiimote. Basically it's exploring a sound through physical space.

In the middle of a performance at a place called Monkey Town in New York, some guy wanted to try it out for himself. He started handing out the Wiimotes to the audience, and the whole place erupted in chaos. They were able to become part of the performance, and it became this egalitarian thing where everyone was joining in.

How did you file these patents while still in school?

Georgia Tech put all the money forward to file the patent, so they own a portion of it. Then they help you find people who can make a startup company, which is what I'm involved in right now, called ZOOZmobile.

We're about to launch our own store within the app, and we're going to be selling some major-label artists. As part of the app you can buy other people's music and almost remix it. We call it re-creating the music, because it's not exactly remixing. We have some big-name people, like Richard Devine and Too $hort, and a few local musicians, as well. They provide us with all the stems for the music, and we cut them up and rearrange them.

It sounds very interactive.

This is a way of adding value to a song. People pay more attention and get more into the music if they're actually engaging in it and making it their own. I'm really interested in how people can stop being just listeners to music and actually be involved in it. When people used to buy an album they'd buy sheet music and play it on the piano. Since recording technology has gotten so good, people have become passive listeners. I like the idea of reinvolving people with the music.